The Value of Egyptian Written Sources Concerning Egyptian Magic

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Egyptian magic in contrast to our Western conception of magic, was a legitimate activity, being part of the natural order, and formed part of religion and medicine.  Our main source material for Egyptian magic is written, including actual magical texts, funerary texts and medical papyri, to narratives and inscriptions on stelae.  However, the written spell was only one component of the magical rite.  As important were the objects or ingredients used, and the actions that accompanied the words; the “performance”, which written sources tell us little about (Pinch, 1994, 76).   Moreover, as only 1% of the society, the elite, could write, what survives is the elite’s practice of magic. Thus our evidence is less enlightening concerning the ordinary person’s indulgence in magic.

The western concept of magic as, “any activity that seeks to obtain its goal outside the natural laws of cause and effects”, cannot be used for Egyptian magic, as it was part of the natural order, the generative force of nature (Ritner, 1995, 1).  Magic was not seen as supernatural or a debased form of religion, it had equal footing with religion and medicine.  Indeed, the lines of demarcation between magic, religion and medicine are uncertain.  The legality of magical practice can be observed in the “Instructions for King Merikare” (Xth Dynasty), where the narrative mentions the allotment to mankind by the gods of the defensive powers of magic (Ibid., 20).  Magic was a system coping with irrational situations, pertaining to matters of life sustenance, techniques, personal security, prosperity and aspects of the afterlife (Lexikon Der Agyptologie 3, 1980, 1137).  The Egyptian word for magic; “heka”, can be shown to be a god and a creative force, though “heka” appears to be the “personification” of the concept, rather than a deity. Another Egyptian word for magical power was “akhu” which translates as “sorcery” or “spells” (Pinch, 1994, 12).  This power was neutral, like “heka” it could be channelled towards creation or destruction.

Thoth, the god of writing, is often mentioned as “excellent of magic”, which is probably due to the association of magic and the word.   Egyptian hieroglyphs, were endowed with divine power, thus a magical text on a scroll hung around the neck, gave protection.  Some statues or stelae such as the Metternich stela, were covered with magical spells, and mounted on a basin.  Water was poured over the spells, thus absorbing the magical words, which could then be used for protection, particularly against snake or scorpion bites (Harris, 1971, 157).    Hieroglyphic signs sometimes were drawn on the skin of the person to be healed, and often would be licked off.  Furthermore, spells were often drunk in order to swallow the words and thus absorb their power.  The magical forces associated with these “living” words were believed to be extremely potent, so that hieroglyphs representing dangerous creatures such as snakes were either incompletely drawn or mutilated after being written (Wilkinson, 1994, 163).

  According to Ritner, the nature of magic can be divided into three, as words or spells to be “spoken”, an activity or rite to be “performed”, and a quality or property to be “possessed” (by the magician) (1995, 35).  Spells were primarily concerned with anticipating or diagnosing the ultimate causes of misfortune.  Many begin with invocations of divine beings, who are summoned to intervene on behalf of the client, and are followed up by specific requests.  Other spells have a mythical narrative, or dialogue between deities.  Indeed myth and magic were closely interlinked and certain mythical events recur as the framework for spells, for example, the wounding of Horus (Pinch, 1994, 29).  Thus these spells can give us much information about Egyptian myths.

The vast itinerary of spells cover a wide range of topics,  such as healing, protection of people and animals, inflicting harm, domestic matters and love.  To give a few examples; for a sleeping woman, “to confess the name of the man she loves, place a bird’s (tongue) under her lip or on her heart and put your question, and she calls the name three times” (Betz, 1986, 295).  A spell for inflicting harm; “If you put camel’s blood and the blood of a dead man into the wine and you make the man drink it, he dies” (Ibid., 234).  Lastly concerning healing; a spell against fever and catarrh, “…God’s words to be said over two divine barks and two udjat eyes, two scarabs, drawn on a  new piece of papyrus.  To be applied at his throat, that it may drive him out quickly (Borghouts, 1978, 36, Spell 55).

From these examples, we can see that a spell is enacted, with a performance, and ingredients or objects are used.  In Ritner’s opinion, it is the rite, not the spell, “that the essence of Egyptian magic is to be sought” (1995, 67).  The performance though, is difficult to ascertain, as except in undisturbed tombs it is rare to find archaeological remains of such an act, and it is not attested in magical texts found.  Spells do hint at the use of paraphernalia necessary to the carrying out of an act, for example, for a headache, “…words to be said over stalks of reeds soaked in mucus, to be twisted leftwise, to be fitted with four knots, to be applied to the head of a man” (Borghouts, 1978, 29, Spell 41).  Pinch asserts that in Graeco-Egyptian papyri, the ingredients maintained cannot always be taken at face value, for example, the rubric to one spell explains that the “heart of a baboon” means oil of lilies.  Therefore it is difficult to know whether such interpretation should be applied to earlier texts (1994, 80).

  Many important objects were used in magical spells, which mainly centred around protection, such as amulets (for the living or dead), wands, lamps and figurines.  Fortunately, magical objects have survived and have provided evidence for types of magic scarcely recorded in the spells.  Written sources though, can be helpful when we cannot detect the use or mistakenly attribute the wrong use to a particular object found.  An excellent example would be the figurine of a woman (now in the Louvre Museum) with her arms tied behind her back, and nails driven into her body.  One would assume, that this object was used in a spell to inflict harm to the person it depicted.  However several spells in the Graeco-Egyptian papyri for gaining the love of a person, describe just this type of procedure, indicating that  “ the only pains to be inflicted by the needles were the pains of love”  (Pinch, 1994, 90).

Aside from the texts themselves, use of magical figures can be observed in a narrative in the Westcar Papyrus, where a wax crocodile, overwhich certain words had been said, could change itself into a living reptile.  More importantly, a priestly official undertook the act, which appeared to be consistent with his office (Ibid., 67-70).  Certain officials conspiring to overthrow king Ramses III (1184-1153 BC), took a magical book from the king’s library, and thus made figures of wax, to inflict harm on the king.  This is shown in the Papyrus Rollin, “…He began to make writings of magic for exorcising (and) disturbing (and) he began to make some gods of wax (and) some potions for laming the limbs of people…” (Ritner, 1995, 193).  The story is useful as evidence that books of magic; works with instructions on how to perform ceremonies, were held in the royal library (Wallis Budge, 1899, 77).  Several narratives in the same papyrus give us valuable information on magical practices, or rather the practitioners of magic.  One informs us of the power possessed by a magician in the time of King Khufu (Cheops) (IVth Dynasty), whereby the magician was able to part a section of the river, to retrieve a dropped ornament (Wallis Budge, 1899, 7-10).  Another tells us of a sage called Teta, who was able to, “fasten on again to its (an animal) body the head which hath been cut off” (Ibid., 15-19).  It appears that this act was exceptional though, as Prince Hardjedef, the son of King Khufu, was the only person to know where to find such a magician able to do this.

Lastly, there are two stories (Setne I and II), about Prince Khamwas (fourth son of King Ramses II) who had been Setem-priest of Ptah at Memphis, and revered after his death as a powerful magician.  Setne 1, describes the theft of a book of magic, that has been written by the god Thoth, from the grave of Naneferkaptah.  Both Setne and Naneferkaptah engage in a contest whereby Setne loses and has to return the book.  The moral of the tale is that magic is a legitimate weapon for humans, but the ultimate secrets of life belong only to the gods.  In addition, the tale portrays the power of spells being limited, as the magic book of Thoth himself cannot restore life to a person just drowned (Petrie, 1895,133).  Setne II concerns Si-Osiri (Setne’s son) and Setne’s visit to the netherworld, and a duel between the Egyptian and Ethiopian magicians at the court in Memphis (Lichteim, 1973, Vol. 3, 125-151).    There are problems however, in linking these narrative texts with the Demotic Magical Papyri, as the magicians in the stories were using a different style of spells to those in the Papyri, and their activities conform more to the Egyptian magical tradition (Tait, 1995, 181).

Controversy surrounds whether there were professional magicians, or rather historical figures who were revered as such, for example Prince Hardjedef just mentioned, and the sage Imhotep, who served King Djoser.  All these narratives portray the priest as magician, perhaps the priest alone constituted the “private” magician.  According to Ritner, there were no truly “royal” or “private” magical spells in ancient Egypt, only priestly spells used for royal or private benefit (1995, 204).  The best known title is that of the “lector-priest”, who is mainly attested in the funerary realm. Yet we do have evidence for the profession, from the discovery of a Middle Kingdom magical box beneath the storeroom at the Ramesseum.  The texts found were all ritual/magical or medico-magical and so were the associated artefacts (Ibid., 222).

One can see how magic was very much part of religion, particularly in protecting the dead.  Our evidence is derived from three groups of funerary texts, which are the most extensive single body of surviving texts.  These are namely, the Pyramid Texts; a collection of statements aimed at urging the soul to go to its eternal rest, written on pyramid walls (and tombs).  The Coffin Texts; spells to protect and speed the deceased on their journey to the afterlife, which were written on the surfaces of coffins.  Lastly, the Book of the Dead, contained spells designed to bring about the resurrection of the dead person, and his or hers safety into the afterlife, and often were wrapped up with the mummy (El Mahdy, 1989, 145-150).

Magic also formed part of medical practice, as the “magic is strong on account of the medicine and vice versa” (Borghouts, 1978, VIII, Spell 72).  The Demotic Magical Papyrus of London and Leiden, include medical prescriptions in which magic plays as large a part as medicine (Griffith and Thompson, 1904, 5).   Almost all the spells from the magical texts of Papyrus Leiden 1, are to do with health (Borghouts, 1978, VIII).  Many magico-medical papyri contain pregnancy tests and contraceptives, as well as tests to promote milk supply and protect newborn babies.   An example of a contraceptive; “ pick up a bean that has a small bug in it and attach it as an amulet” (Betz, 1986, 295, LXIII).  Another example; a medicine for warding off a haemorrhage in a wound, “ Dirt of flies and red ochre to be applied to it. To be said by way of magic: The wretched one was seized by the strong one and vice versa (Borghouts, 1978, 24, Spell 32).

Magic was also used to inflict harm though, as shown in the Execration Texts, which were cursing formulae inscribed on pots and figurines.  These texts simply consisted of the name, parentage and title of the enemy.  Yet they cannot in themselves be called magical.  Rather, the actions performed during the ritual, of which we know little must have inflicted the curse. The texts are aimed mainly at enemy rulers in Nubia, Libya and Syria-Palestine.  Hence the texts provide valuable information on foreign enemies of Egypt (Pinch, 1994, 93).  Later though, the lists became fixed and names were used long after the enemy ceased to become a danger.

There is dispute over whether oracles should be included under the term “magic”.  In agreement, the Papyrus Chester Beatty Four states, “ the sages who prophesied ill fortune … concealed their magic from the entire world” (Ritner,1995, 38).  Moreover, Heka, in the Esna Litany is praised as “Lord of Oracles, Lord of revelations, who foretells what will happen” (Ibid., 36).  Yet, evidence for oracles is rare until Graeco-Roman Egypt, where much of the magical papyri consist of divination and oracles.  An exception would be in the village of Deir el-Medina, where the workmen consulted the gods of their community, questions being put forward, to which a particular god would reply (Ray, 1981, 180).  The Serapeum gods at Memphis (end of 4th century BC), all were oracle givers communicating through dream interpretation (Ibid., 184).

In all that has been mentioned about magic, using written sources that have survived, it must be remembered that these sources only represent a small number of all the spells that existed, and many texts found are not perfectly preserved.   Furthermore, writing was the tool of the elite; kings, priests and scribes, hence we only have the elite’s view of magic.  Much of what is known concerns funerary magic, ritual magic performed in temples and everyday magic we know much less about (Pinch, 1994, 9).  Magical texts were held in royal and temple (House of Life) libraries, where only authorised entry was allowed.  We know that most everyday magic was written in hieratic, and the form of spell sometimes imitated other types of documents, such as royal decrees (Pinch, 1994, 70).  Kings did not feature, with the exception of a statue of Rameses III in the eastern desert, which supposedly protected travellers from harmful animals (Jacq, 1985, 16).  There is little evidence for superstition, for which no Egyptian word exists (Ritner, 1995, 217).  Ostraca found at Deir el-Medina  suggests that some people tried to defend themselves with magic.  One villager wrote to a craftsman asking him to make an image of Taweret to protect him against a bau of Seth (Pinch, 1994, 44). Yet, if we cannot be conclusive regarding the significance of magic in everyday life, we can be so in death.   As mentioned many spells were written on coffins or placed with the deceased indicating the universal fear of death and longing for eternal life.

In conclusion, magic was important in Egyptian life and was used mainly for healing and protection.  Little distinction can be made between magic and medicine, and less so with magic and religion.  Thus our written sources encompass magical texts, funerary texts, and medical papyri, in addition to narratives, inscriptions on stelae and such like.  Though our written sources are valuable concerning the study of magic, they mainly concern the elite, funerary magic and written spells.  We know much less about temple rituals, everyday magic, and the magical rite.  In addition, care is required when using the concept magic, as can be gathered from this paper, the traditional definition does not correlate with the nature of Egyptian magic.


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